The United States entered the Afghanistan tunnel in 2001 and, nine years later, is still stuck in there. In this conceptual tunnel, the generals always perceive the light of victory at its end, while the political leaders want to get out but are hemmed in by its walls. The tunnel also hides the war from the people, most of whom are hardly aware that it is going on, or where it is taking them.
Recently, considerable excitement accompanied the assumption of the Afghanistan command by the Wizard of COIN. The (entertainment) media lavished breathless praise upon the trinket-laden general, while the commentariat pontificated gravely on the prospect that he would repeat his Iraq success through his magic formula. Unfortunately, the only real wizardry possessed by the general (and his acolytes) is in promoting the legends surrounding him, such as his ‘invention’ of COIN, and how its application in Iraq secured victory there. The fact is, this ‘magic’ formula had nothing to do with the reduction of the insurgency in Iraq.
What Gen Petraeus did do in Iraq was apply a century-old British imperial practice that had worked in the northern tribal areas of British India. Having fruitlessly tried for many years to subdue the tribes, the British, around the beginning of the 20th century, decided to use money instead of force. They set up a system of regular payments to tribal leaders in return for promises not to attack British troops or government functionaries. In addition, the tribes were left alone to run their own affairs without interference. To take care of the younger tribesmen (who might find the enforced peacefulness too boring) the British recruited them into local militias to police the area and deal with troublemakers. This method of ensuring peace with the rebellious tribesmen served the British well for the first half of the century, and then did so equally well for their successor, the Pakistan government, for another 50-odd years.
While creating a magic lantern COIN show, this is basically what the Wizard did in Iraq. He bought off the Sunni tribes by ending operations against them, paying them regularly, and allowing them to run their own affairs without interference by the US military or the Shia-dominated Iraqi government. He also set up local militias (the Sons of Iraq, or the Sahwa) that maintained peace in their areas, fighting off al-Qaeda militants where necessary. Another reason for his success was that Muqtada al-Sadr called off the Shia insurgency after relearning the timeworn lesson that irregular forces trying to wage conventional operations against well-armed regular forces would inevitably get a bloody nose. The general level of violence in Iraq had in any case already gone down dramatically by the time Gen Petraeus took over command, due to the ethnic cleansing of large parts of the country.
It will not be possible for the general to repeat this wizardry in Afghanistan.
During the long period of Soviet occupation and the jihad against it, the old tribal structures broke down; except in isolated small areas, the framework no longer exists to win over tribes with money or set up a Sons of Iraq type force. Also, US policy is to help the Karzai central government impose its authority throughout the country, whereas in Iraq one of the main reasons why the Sunni tribes joined the US effort was because of the promise to protect them from the Shia government. The biggest problems, however, are the deeply ingrained Afghan antipathy to foreigners, especially foreign soldiers, and the fact that the insurgency here is much more ideologically motivated than it was in Iraq. There is no quick or easy victory to be won here.
Osama bin Laden may yet succeed in his quixotic plan to bring down the American giant, though not quite in the way he thought. He launched his attacks on the US hoping to provoke a response that would cause Muslims everywhere to rise up in a wave of jihadi fervour. Thus embroiled in an unending war with the Muslim world, the US and the West would slowly bleed to destruction (much as the Soviet Union was fatally undermined by the Cold War, including, ironically, their Afghan misadventure). Muslims did not respond as he had hoped, but, unwittingly, he provided the Perpetual War faction in the US with the opportunity that they had been looking for.
The powerful interests and organizations that make up this group learnt from the Cold War that embroiling the US in such a long war was of immense gain to them personally, and to the causes some of them espoused. Ever since the end of that war, they had been seeking to initiate another such open-ended conflict. Bin Laden’s spectacular 9/11 attacks gave them exactly what they wanted, and thus was born what has variously been called the Great War on Terror, the Long War, or, sotto voce, the war with Islam. Whatever the name, it is, essentially, another war without end, with Afghanistan merely the latest episode.
There is, thus, an unfortunate commonality of goals between al-Qaeda and the ‘perpetual warriors’ who effectively determine policy in the US. Both desire a long-lasting war between the US (and the rest of the West) and the Muslim world. The destruction of resources that such a war would entail, and the attendant transfers of wealth from public hands into private pockets, could lead, even though not intended by these warriors, to the same outcome that bin Laden hoped to achieve ‒ bleeding the West into eventual collapse.
On the other side, Osama bin Laden’s Great Jihad, and the Western response it has elicited, is pushing Muslims into a dark age of war, mindless violence, state repression, societal breakdown, illiteracy, poverty, hopelessness and fanaticism, all of which loop back to feed the anti-West jihad. The bright hopes that blossomed when the Muslim world emerged in the 20th century from the long night of colonialism and the two prior lost centuries, must now await another dawn.
The war in Afghanistan is one that neither side can win. Or lose. Stuck in this tunnel, the US will continue to wage this war that the generals don’t want to end and the politicians don’t know how to end. Sad as they are, the many young lives lost and maimed are perhaps not the biggest loss that the US will suffer (after all, some 34,000 traffic fatalities occurred in the US in 2009). Instead, it is the pouring out of its treasure into this bottomless pit of making war, preparing for war, and profiting from war, while the real needs of the country and its people go largely unmet, and the new global crises of climate change, over-population and resource scarcity draw ever closer.
This war will end (as the Iraq war ended) when another, more ‘critical’, front opens up somewhere else in the Long War. Or, perhaps, if some day the American people finally recognise the perils of the path they are being led down, and decide to take back control of their destiny (as they did once before to end the Vietnam war). Thus aroused, they may even be able to end the ‘war without end’.
© FB Ali (July 2010)